Damian Abraham Moderated a Remarkably Civil Mayoral Arts Debate in Toronto

We attended the Toronto mayoral debate hosted by Fucked Up's Damian Abraham centred on the arts, and watched as candidates tried their best to sell their connections to the art world.

Sep 30 2014, 3:45pm

Photo via the author.
Yesterday, Damian Abraham of Fucked Up fame (and our Canadian Cannabis series) moderated a mayoral debate hosted by ArtsVote at the TIFF Lightbox in Toronto. As we approach the one-year anniversary of Rob Ford admitting he smoked crack, Toronto’s year of police surveillance, professional wrestlers and boxers visiting City Hall, FordFests, and sudden medical emergencies, the inclusion of Canada’s favourite screaming frontman moderating a debate seemed just about right.

That said, compared to last week’s debate where Olivia Chow was heckled to “go back to China” and a woman screamed out her homophobic support for the Fords, the ArtsVote debate was remarkably civil. Abraham began by warning the crowd that homophobia and racism would not be tolerated (it’s a shame that this warning needs to be issued, in 2014, in Toronto) and the candidates began to trip over each other to answer questions about the future of arts funding in Toronto.

Joining the regular trio of Ford, Chow, and Tory were Morgan Baskin, the “teen candidate,” who at 19 has already developed an impressive amount of political acumen, and Ari Goldkind, a defence lawyer who, in a profile published by the Toronto Star called “Meet the Longshots” was photographed after defending a pedophile client. But, as Goldkind told the paper, “People think that my job is getting somebody off. It’s not. It’s making sure we dot I’s and cross T’s.”

So with the dream team assembled, the candidates did their best to sell their connections to the art world. Some more than others. Goldkind’s performance was strong, and he was quick to take on Tory and Ford. He called Tory the “king of maybe” and challenged Doug Ford, who often mentioned the economic benefits of the arts, by saying: “You can’t legitimize the arts by saying it makes a profit.” Though as a genuine member of the arts community, he floundered. When asked about his most transformative arts experience in the city, he mentioned the one time he had dinner at O.Noir, the restaurant where all the servers are blind. Not only is that arguably not an artistic experience, he was probably meeting a client anyhow.

Nice try, Ari.

Olivia Chow is arguably the most connected candidate to artists and creative projects across the city. She namedropped The Remix Project more than once—an academy and nonprofit for youth in low-income areas to study music, photography, and business. It’s considered to be instrumental in the rise of OVO, and they just opened a new HQ in Chicago.

Olivia was also able to namedrop other, specific, successful creative projects—like the ArtSpace renovation of an old school on Shaw St. that has provided studio space for artists. But she often got bogged down with dreamy philosophy about how art can help business, and how important creativity is for a city, repeating such ethereal phrases as: “Creativity allows us to see the world in a different way.” Rather than sticking to her specific accomplishments or actionable ideas.

Hearing John Tory speak about the arts was, unsurprisingly, like listening to your Conservative uncle tell you about his favourite painting. He was nearly incapable of answering a question about his “most transformative art experience,” beginning with a ramble about how impressive one-man plays are (without specifically naming one) before ending on a general answer: Nuit Blanche. Tory also namedropped Queen St. West as the “second coolest neighbourhood in the world,” but probably hasn’t set foot on it since the 1980s.

Doug Ford’s performance, in contrast to his last debate, was surprisingly subdued. Ari Goldkind cracked that he must have had a tea before the debate, and it’s clear that he’s been coached to calm the fuck down, here and there. Given that Doug Ford doesn’t have much of an arts record, he focused on two key things: his trip to Austin with his brother to plan a “music city” initiative in Toronto, and the arts gala he and his brother organized (the division of labour is unclear), which raised a million bucks for the arts.

Doug committed to keeping that fundraiser going, which is great, but his attempt to paint himself as an arts advocate fell to pieces when he continuously referenced his goal to “bring a world class music festival” to Toronto. He cited SXSW and Austin City Limits as world class music festivals (even though he has never been to SXSW) and namedropped Michael Hollett (a vocal critic of the Fords), who founded NXNE as his “friend” who joined him on the trip to Austin.

The problem with this is that, NXNE is by all accounts a world class music festival*. Its lineup is often quite similar to the lineups you’ll find at any other marquee music festival across North America, but as any concert promoter in Toronto knows, there are various municipal blockades in place when it comes to booking off-kilter venues, or holding electronic music events.

As Olivia said: “We need to make sure we're not afraid of [EDM]."

Doug also mentioned the City Hall music office, which is a Ford initiative, and was never followed through on. He constantly referred to it, as if it’s some great success, when in reality it never opened. Unfortunately, none of the candidates called him out on that.

The most impressive debater was Morgan Baskin, who is quite clearly a serious longshot in the race, but who is already demonstrating she’s willing to go toe-to-toe with the staid candidates Toronto has been watching in debates—for what seems like an eternity now. She was the only candidate, when asked about whether or not Toronto needs a civil employee who could act as the city’s ‘Creative Director,’ who made mention of actually attending the public meeting about having such a position in the first place. And she was not afraid to mention the Ford Bros’ reluctance to vote for arts initiatives (though, to be fair, Rob voted against TIFF funding and Doug did not).

The moment Olivia elicted a collective groan from the ArtsVote debate crowd, via Twitter user graphicmatt.
Ultimately, the more conservative candidates (Doug and Tory) made the mistake of acting as if their future initiatives would suddenly make Toronto a world class arts city. Tory said that he would take the Toronto arts from “good to great,” when the reality is that the city is already full of talent. What’s needed is more funding, less roadblocks, and more affordable space for artists to live and work. That’s where the government comes in—and clearly, most candidates have no idea what’s actually happening in the city or its world-class cool neighbourhoods (thanks Vogue, for using SEO clickbait articles for evil. You’ve ruined our city).

Unfortunately, the debate ended in embarrassing fashion, as Olivia Chow declared that she was going to share some original art of her own with the crowd. She then held up a crude drawing of John Tory’s transit plan, which elicited a sea of groans in the crowd. Abraham, who was there to keep the candidates on the topic of the arts, threw his hands up in frustration. And Tory, as if to say now now, just let her prattle on, advised Abraham to just let her go.

It was a sad attempt at over-politicizing a debate on the arts, especially from a woman who, earlier in the debate, had said: “We can’t play politics with the arts.”

If this is the kind of maturity that our (ostensibly) most artistic mayoral hopeful is bringing to the table, the Toronto arts community shouldn’t be holding their breath for a windfall of municipal support anytime soon.

*The author is a member of NXNE’s advisory board.